Marcus Tanner: With Karadzic in the dock, the Bosnians he terrorised may finally be given closure

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How frustrated Carla del Ponte must feel. The former chief prosecutor of the Hague war crimes tribunal was desperate to see Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic in the dock before she stood down. "I want my fugitives!" she would declaim on her tours of European capitals, tirelessly fighting off moves by Brussels to give Serbia the chance of EU membership before the handover of the court's two most wanted men.

The trial of Slobodan Milosevic, which consumed the latter half of Del Ponte's mandate as prosecutor, started badly and ended as farce, with the suspect's death in his cell. This trial, on the other hand, has the potential to redeem The Hague court's damaged reputation before it closes for good in a couple of years.

It is a far better note for the tribunal to end on than was expected, because no one doubts that the capture and handover of the former Bosnian Serb president – who presided over the three-year siege of Sarajevo, the grisly detention camps in north-west Bosnia, the massacre at Srebrenica and a whole lot else – is a coup.

This will be a far more interesting and illuminating trial than was Milosevic's. The old Serbian chieftain was a master of evasion and obfuscation, and he had covered his tracks all the way. "Do what you have to do," was what he used to tell his underlings in that booming, enigmatic voice of his during the war years. From day one, he seemed perfectly aware of the need to make sure no bloodstains were left clinging to his blue suit – not visible ones, anyway.

Karadzic, one-time poet, football fan and psychiatrist, was a very different figure. He would blurt out his fears, dreams and intentions to anyone who was willing to listen, journalists and whole parliaments included. No wonder Milosevic grew exceedingly bored, worried and irritated by him, finally shafting him at the 1995 Dayton Ohio peace conference, cutting a deal directly with the Americans on Bosnia's future and going right over Karadzic's head.

Both during and after the war, before he vanished into silence, the Bosnian Serb chief lied blatantly and routinely. He would flatly deny that the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica even took place. As for those infamous camps in north-west Bosnia, according to him they were centres set up at the Muslims' request – sanctuaries, if you like, where kindly Serb soldiers went without in order to hand out food and clothing to weary Muslim refugees.

But while mouthing these and other preposterous falsehoods, he was never efficient at keeping his big plans secret. Go for independence, he shouted all too revealingly at the Bosnian Muslim deputies, at a session of the Sarajevo parliament in 1991, and your people face extinction. You will go to hell, the same hell currently being visited on Croatia, he added. No lies or dissimulation there. "Don't forget the Serbs always have the extra bullet," he boasted, again quite accurately, in public, around the same time.

His garrulousness, which could have an almost amiable and disarming quality on his interlocutors (quite unlike the effect of a conversation with the screaming, psychopathic Mladic) was shared by his colleagues, the phoney Shakespearean scholar, Nikola Koljevic, who spoke English in a pseudo-Oxbridge drawl, and the schoolmarmish Biljana Plavsic.

I once asked Plavsic in the early stages of the war, why she, Karadzic and Koljevic were so bent on herding the Muslims out of their towns and into tiny, miserable, crowded enclaves. She got all convivial, confiding that the Bosnian Serbs were doing them a favour. "They're basically orientals, so they like living on top of each other," she chattered, as if she had said nothing untoward. How the bland and wily Milosevic would have cringed at such an indiscretion.

They were all like that, the Bosnian Serb leaders, almost open about what they were up to, which is why a mass of evidence now links Karadzic to most of the horrors that took place in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, bar the Muslims' internal feuds and the Muslim-Croat battles. It means his lawyer will have a tough job fighting the two gravest charges his client faces – of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Karadzic's only available weapon in The Hague, presumably, will be to act on his threat to spill the beans on all the promises, pledges and dirty deals he once claimed that various important international actors at stages of the conflict had offered him. Well, now we shall see if that particular gun is loaded.

So this will not be a tedious trial that drags on for years, as Milosevic's did, losing the attention of almost everyone except for court officials. It will be followed with passionate intensity; certainly in Bosnia, possibly, albeit with very different feelings, in Serbia. And if Karadzic is found guilty of the gravest charges, his imprisonment may bring a small measure of comfort to the relatives of the 100,000 or so dead Bosnian Muslims who died in the war.

True, General Mladic, the man who pulled the trigger, the terminator-in-chief, remains out there. And perhaps it is also true, as some believe, that it was the clearly unbalanced Mladic who insisted on the total slaughter of the captured men and boys of Srebrenica during that fearful week in July 1995 when the enclave fell, unable otherwise to assuage the furies raging within him – not until he had seen real gore.

Still, with the arrest of Karadzic, things have changed; a tectonic plate has shifted. The myth that the Bosnian Serb duo had simply vanished into the ether, or into a remote monastery, or were in Russia, and could never be captured, let along tried, has been exploded. It died the moment Karadzic was arrested in the middle of the Serbian capital.

What a prosaic ending to his career – arrest on a bus in Belgrade! It now seems clear that the highest circles in Serbia have known for years where these two men have been hiding out, and that Karadzic's arrest was a purely political decision, not the result of a sudden breakthrough in intelligence. Someone decided that the endless foot-dragging had to end.

Europe beckons. The old chain protecting Serbia's remaining indictees, and whose links comprise church, army, business and politicians, has rusted and is snapping. Now Karadzic is in the bag, it begs the question of how much longer Mladic will remain at liberty.

If the General were to be reeled in as well, that really would bring a degree of "closure" to the former Yugoslavia, at least as far as the Bosnian Muslims are concerned, for I suspect they cherish rather more hatred for the butcher Mladic than they do even for his civilian boss. And as the Muslims were the greatest victims of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, certainly in terms of the number of civilian dead, it's surely time, after 13 years of waiting, that they obtained that much satisfaction.

Marcus Tanner was The Independent's correspondent in the Balkans from 1988 to 1994 and is the author of 'Croatia – A Nation Forged in War', published by Yale

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